The Living Catalogue Raisonné of the Future

Catalogues raisonnés—scholarly books that contain complete information on all of an artist’s works (his or her oeuvre) or about their works in specific media (such as sculpture or painting), have served an important function historically for artists and the art world. 

They establish the provenance and attribution of an artwork—who owned it and who made it—as well as identifying the number of works an artist made. All of this information leads to a better understanding of an artwork’s scholarly and market value. This form of inventory has been particularly important for very valuable artists whose markets are rife with fakes, and those who have had workshops, as they seek to identify the artist as author rather than one of his or her assistants. 

Since the first catalogues raisonnés were authored in the Renaissance, they have tended to be created toward the end of an artist’s career or after their death, and are usually limited to the most successful artists, given how expensive they are to produce and publish. 

Today, digital technology and the internet have dramatically altered the character of the genre, allowing for more data to be assembled and easily edited—something that was once incredibly laborious. The internet also allows catalogues to be published in a dramatically cheaper fashion. 

This new form of the catalogue raisonné—cheaper, editable, more dynamic—has also made them increasingly appealing and available to younger artists. One of these artists is Los Angeles-based Tim Hawkinson (born 1960), one of the most celebrated multimedia artists of his generation. Hawkinson has been the subject of one-person exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Hawkinson’s catalogue has been released by Artifex Press, probably the best-known publisher to specialize in this digital form. Artifex Press was founded in partnership with Pace Gallery and launched to the public in 2012. While various other companies (such as PanOpticon) have created database software—a “back-end” for expertly compiling information about an artist’s oeuvre—Artifex Press works in partnership with artists, their studios or estates, or independent scholars to also create a user-friendly “front-end” web experience. 

 Initially, Artifex worked only with artists in Pace Gallery’s roster, but increasingly they have been engaging a number of other artists interested in catalogue raisonnés, such as Carl Andre. The platform currently works with 14 artists total (11 of which are visible on the Press’s homepage), and there are over 30,000 images in the entire database, public and private. The platform is subscription-based, but temporarily open to everyone. Whether open-access or subscription-based, Artifex sees their catalogues raisonnés as serving a focused art public of students, scholars, auction houses, galleries, libraries, and museums.

A view of Hawkinson’s catalogue—which contains all of his works from 1986 onward, plus a selection of early works from 1979-1985—shows the myriad opportunities available to artists using the Artifex Press software. In short, any type of information can be related to artworks. Hawkinson, for example, was particularly interested in providing more detail around his materials, so there are searchable categories for works that incorporate such uncommon materials as eggshells and extension cords. There are also often in-depth explanations about these uncommon materials. His work Untitled (Chicken) (1986), for example, made of chicken skin on a wire frame, includes a brief note, which explains that the skin was “carefully kept intact,” a detail that dramatically heightened my sense of the piece’s preciousness. In the notes for Index Finger (1997), we are told that the dozens of red pens and pencils that “make up the innards” of this sculpture of a sliced-off fingertip were those used to make another work, his 35-foot-long scroll Wall Chart of World History from Earliest Times to the Present (1997). These two works are also linked in the “Related Artworks” section beneath each image. 

As a scholar, I was extremely impressed with the ways in which information could be accessed in the catalogue. You can pretty much search by any term in a record, so instead of being confined to the organization of a traditional catalogue raisonné (typically arranged according to medium and date), you can additionally sort artworks by exhibitions, publications, locations, catalogue numbers, titles—basically any of the data within a record. This makes them infinitely more searchable and user-friendly. 

The most appealing content for me were the videos, which I immediately clicked on upon opening the catalogue. They’re extremely helpful for animating Hawkinson’s kinetic work— still photographs tell such a limited story about pieces like these. The catalogue could have benefitted from more videos, however, and I wish that interviews with the artist had been included, as there are in Artifex’s Chuck Close Paintings 1967-Present catalogue raisonné. One further drawback to the Hawkinson catalogue is the fact that the bibliography does not provide any access to the articles; ideally you would be able to click through to links or PDFs, and read the articles cited. 

Hawkinson at first found the idea of a catalogue raisonné a bit depressing because of the historical connections to death, and the inference of a career’s conclusion. As well, he prefers not to “look back” at his previous work. Yet he was attracted by the idea of a digital catalogue since it was a living resource and, in this way, could grow and change as he continues to make work. In particular, he’s interested in establishing further relationships between works, adding more references, and possibly more video for the kinetic sculptures.

One of the major decisions Hawkinson had to make while working on the catalogue was identifying when his artistic practice actually began. For some artists and artists’ estates this has been a contentious issue that affects collectors. For Hawkinson it wasn’t as difficult. “I start with the works which clearly inform the professional direction I eventually went in. I don’t include my earlier—more experimental—paintings, and I don’t think anyone will be offended by this. My only collector in those days was my mom.”

On Tuesday, March 10, from 6–8 P.M. at the New York Public Library, Hawkinson will be discussing the launch of the catalogue with David Grosz, President of Artifex Press, and Hannah Barton, Editor of the catalogue. More information here.